The Problem of “Alien” Righteousness

We cannot go further in our discussion on Christian perfection without addressing the whole idea of “alien” righteousness. The ancient Church clearly saw that the starting point in discussion of what makes us human is that man, although fallen, was made in the image of God, and thus endowed by the grace of God with certain powers. With Martin Luther and the Reformation, the starting point in the discussion of what makes us human is that we are sinners that deserve damnation, and with this is tied the doctrine we discussed in the last post, the total depravity of mankind. From here something new developed that forever shaped Protestant theology, and that ultimately made the whole idea of perfection, and even the more general doctrine of sanctification, awkward ideas in the Protestant world ─ the completely new concept of “alien” righteousness.

What “alien” righteousness means is that the righteousness that justifies us before God is external to us, located in Christ, and is applied to us from without by grace and remains completely a righteousness alien to us as persons. It can never be said to be our righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness, “reckoned,” or imputed to us. Since only Christ is perfect in His righteousness, and we are helplessly depraved, only an act of grace apart from us can justify us before God the Judge. Although Christ’s righteousness becomes ours through faith, it is never something God works in us from within, but acts as a sort of clothing from without that saves us from damnation. (See Christian Theology by Alister E. McGrath for an excellent discussion, 4th Ed. 2007. pp. 375f.) Growing up in evangelical circles, and attending a Presbyterian seminary, this doctrine seemed as natural to me as apple pie at Thanksgiving. Anything else meant that we saved ourselves by our own works which undermined grace through faith. I had no idea that this doctrine of “alien” righteousness constituted a complete break with 1500 years of Church history and theology, let alone Scripture. It became a new lens through which the Protestant world read the Epistles of Paul. When one wears the same lens every time one reads Scripture, of course one sees the same thing everywhere.

The problem with “alien” righteousness is that it essentially ignores or disregards something we humans all know intuitively, and which Scripture plainly teaches, that we are divine image bearers. It undermines the human mystery. True, we are justified and saved by grace through faith, but this righteousness is something God works within us. Jesus Christ lives within us through the Holy Spirit, and He works His righteousness through us as real persons responding to His presence within. True, our wills are bent away from God and toward self, but Jesus gently works with our wills to bring them into union with His. Our reason is darkened and insufficient to comprehend God, but Jesus enlightens our reason so that we can understand the things of God. Our emotions are “miss wired,” driven by fear and sinful desires, but Jesus draws our emotions to Himself. All these interior aspects of our humanity made in the image of God, and others not mentioned, are really ours (will, reason, and emotions), and though fallen, can be renewed, and when they are renewed by the power and grace of God, they remain ours, a righteousness that Christ works in us. From one angle it is Christ’s righteousness because He is the One that works within us. Apart from Him we can do nothing! On the other hand, this righteousness is truly ours and part of who we are because, by the grace of God, we have responded to Jesus with our interior “machinery.” When we give ourselves over to this with our whole hearts, we live the life of perfection!

It is Christmas Eve and I see that I have bitten off more than I can chew for the time and space before me … we need to continue this discussion in our next post.

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